The gender of nouns

The Cutty Sark has been destroyed by a fire. This morning on the news, the journalists were obviously referring to the ship as a "she", which didn’t surprise me. However, this reminded me of a conversation I had a few months back with one of the men who repainted the outside of the building where my office is. I pointed out to him that they’d been lucky with the weather, which had been glorious ever since the start of the work. He replied, gesturing at the scaffolding:
"Yes, but it’s been very windy at times, and she moves quite a lot."
She? Scaffolding is a she? That was a new one for me. I turned to my old Linguistique et grammaire de l’anglais, by Lapaire & Rotgé, to understand why. It suggests that the end of the Old English period marked a time of upheaval for the English language: not only inflections, but also nouns, pronouns and gender were going to be turned upside down during the transition between Old and Middle English. New criteria became absolutely central to determine gender (masculine, feminine, neutral), and particularly the "natural" opposition between animate and inanimate, and within these, the difference between human and non-human, masculine and feminine. The neutral benefited greatly from this grammatical upheaval and included everything which is non-personal, or words not concerned by the opposition between person of masculine gender / person of feminine gender.
That is why living but non-human creatures, objects, concepts, phenomenon and feelings were deemed neutral. Only pets, boats, one’s car, the homeland or home town and certain metaphysical entities susceptible to inspire humans remained on the border separating the neutral, the feminine and the masculine. Why? Because this new and very human-centred system allowed non-human objects and concepts to be included in the feminine or masculine territory, because they were linked to the "human sphere". Hence, a sentimental link, a closeness, an affective relationship can make an inanimate, non-human object or concept topple into the gendered sphere.
All of this explains why inanimate objects, such as a boat or a scaffold, can be given a gender. Spending days on a boat or a scaffold, whose resilience and solidity your life may depend on, is bound to create a bond which brings them closer to the human domain, and hence to the personal, gendered sphere.

By | 2016-10-18T15:49:55+00:00 May 22nd, 2007|Technical corner|11 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Margaret May 22, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    I think feminist criticism of language use has commented that when objects are treated as having a gender, the gender is always feminine.

  2. céline May 22, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    Really? What’s always struck me in English is that when animals are given a gender and the person who’s speaking doesn’t know whether they’re male of female, they always go for the masculine. Which is extremely silly, as spiders and seagulls are obviously always female.

  3. xl May 22, 2007 at 6:05 pm

    It is traditional, for whatever reason, to refer to a ship as “she.” That is OK with me.
    But, it always seems odd to me to do so when a ship has been christen with a male name and still refer to it as a “she!”

  4. Xavier Kreiss May 22, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    When I was still at school, I was told that, apart from the obvious (men: masculine, women: feminine, etc), ships, cars and other vehicles were feminine. So were cats, for some reason. And babies were neutral.
    Was there any basis to this? Or had the teacher who taught us this rule made it all up?

  5. Audrey May 22, 2007 at 9:44 pm

    Indeed, for years I believed babies were neutral, but you should have a look at the parenting magazines. To refer to the unborn child or to any newborn or even toddler in general, they choose “she” even if you are the proud parents of a little boy!

  6. lektu May 23, 2007 at 12:12 am

    > Which is extremely silly, as spiders and seagulls are obviously always female.

  7. céline May 23, 2007 at 8:44 am

    lektu, that was a little joke. "Araignée" and "mouette" are feminine nouns in French, which means that we always call them "elle", whether they’re male or female. And that’s why, to aFrench ear, calling a spider "he" is very odd.

  8. Margaret May 24, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    About animals: right, I wasn’t thinking about them. I regard animals as having a gender anyway. What I have encountered is that a dog is called he and a cat is called she. I do have a Yorkshire colleague who always called his female cat he and actually its name was Henry, but I find this idiosyncratic.
    I just looked at the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, which uses corpora. For countries and ships, the choice is between she and it; for babies and animals, especially pets, there is a three-way choice.

  9. Eleanor May 25, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    I agree that any machine, such as a ship or a racing car, interesting enough to have its own personality can be spoken of as a living thing; and my perception is that since they reproduce asexually (by means of humans making another one), they must necessarily be female. Or maybe, female is what things are by default, and males are an optional extra. Whereas a living thing that lives of itself could be of either sex, so if you don’t know you just choose based on its appearance or personality, and if you don’t care you say “it”.
    But that’s just the way it works in my head. I come from a seafaring family that would always regard a known ship as “she”. The ship’s name is irrelevant, because “she” refers to the sex of the thing, not the gender of the name.

  10. Bela May 28, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    I was taught exactly the same thing as Xavier at school: cats were feminine unless you knew for sure what sex they were. I applied that rule until I realised no one else around me did. I think it had already become old-fashioned by then.

  11. Fellippe Heitor May 30, 2007 at 4:21 am

    I remember one episode of an American sitcom called “Blossom” in which the main character (Blossom) was talking to her boyfriend about God and said something like “I think She wears a long dress” – That was funny.
    In a song Madonna wrote (“Frozen”), she says: “Love is a bird. She needs to fly…”
    I always use this last case as an example when my students question me about gender. I tell them about poetic license and they just look at me, probably thinking: “Why can’t English be like Portuguese?” (I’m from Brazil).

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